Imagine you and your family buy a piece of country property on a quiet dirt road far from neighbors and highways. One of the selling points of your parcel was a year-round creek up at the north end; you’ve seen mergansers, turtles, and fish on your stretch of the creek. But one day you notice the taste of gasoline in your drinking water.
You must be mistaken—your well is spring-fed and you had it tested for mineral and bacterial contamination before you purchased the property. You test again, and this time the sample indicates serious diesel contamination. Further investigation leads to a “fake house” nestled in trees on the other side of the creek. The building looks like a residence, but it’s only home to several hundred marijuana plants. The diesel tank for the system’s generators—necessary to power about forty 1,000-watt lamps, some on eighteen hours a day, some twelve—is leaking gallons of diesel into the soil, the creek, and the groundwater.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman tells this story about a family in Piercy. It’s becoming more common in the new climate of large-scale illegal grows, indoors and out. The quiet-seeking family listened to generators running day and night, smelled diesel exhaust, and learned more about bad installations than they ever hope to know: The grower used a polymer tank connected to the generators with PVC pipe and wire clamp connectors. Neither the tank nor the pipe and fittings are rated to hold petroleum products. The Hazardous Materials unit ends up at situations like this, and landowners are responsible for the clean-up costs. Assuming there is a landowner. Often grows happen on remote tribal, BLM, or national forest lands, and taxpayers foot the bill.
According to a 2006 report by Dr. Jon B. Gettman of Shepherd University, California leads the nation in indoor and outdoor marijuana production. It is the state’s largest cash crop, generating nearly $14 billion, more than grapes, vegetables, and hay combined. Moreover, production has increased ten-fold in the last 25 years. Much of that production takes place in marginal and remote areas, where ATVs power up hills to tiny outcrops, generators thunder day and night, and water trucks suck water out of tiny creeks.
Humboldt County supervising environmental health specialist Melissa Martel says that diesel bioaccumulates in aquatic species and continues up the food chain. “The coating action of diesel oil can kill algae, insects, fish and birds,” she says. “Studies indicate that 50 percent of fish will die when exposed to about 1 teaspoon of diesel in 25 gallons of water.”
Diesel setups are so prevalent that Martel gives advice on setting up safe fuel conveyance systems. “The growers that we investigate aren’t the peace-loving, organic-growing hippies that you might imagine. We find 100-KW generators with multiple 10,000-gallon diesel storage tanks sitting on the ground, commonly in a creek drainage with good riparian coverage, with makeshift piping, hoses, and no seismic support. Not surprisingly, grows are too frequently discovered by CDF or local volunteer fire [fighters] when the grow and surrounding trees are on fire.”
Mendocino County fisheries biologist Cynthia LeDoux experiences other difficulties related to large grows: her own safety is at risk. On a number of occasions, she has abandoned stream monitoring related to watershed and fisheries restoration and recovery because of large grows. Once she and her colleague were removed from a research site due to a 16,000-plant operation nearby. “Migrants are being helicoptered in by cartels,” she says, referring to Mexican drug cartels that have recently begun growing in Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, and Lake counties. “The California Department of Fish & Game doesn’t deal with many large-scale grows because of the major possibility of violence.” These dangers extend beyond law enforcement and game wardens down to biologists and the general public.
Henry Alden, vice president of Walala Redwoods Inc., agrees that there is “an increasing trend of full-time growers who aren’t local and are more violent.” There have been reports from many parts of Northern California of hikers and equestrians being threatened and even shot at as a result of stumbling upon a pot plantation. Allman says, “These large grows are always well off the beaten path. We were on a helicopter bust of 34,000 plants. There must have been twenty people living at the site who scattered when the helicopter came. They lived there all summer, putting all manner of waste into the soil and water.”
The danger extends to wildlife. Allman describes deer, squirrel, and raccoon carcasses found near grow sites. “The animals are going to go for the greenest thing around come fall. In this case, it’s the foliage of large marijuana plantations.” Growers put out poison or shoot the animals.
The presence of rats creates another problem. “They’ll chew the stalks of the plants and girdle them,” says Allman, so the growers use poison pellets. “The rat ingests the poison and goes to get a drink at a nearby stream,” Allman says. “Rat poison is activated by water. The poison kills the animal close by, and when the body decomposes, 100 percent of the poison is carried directly into the watershed.” Raptors and vultures eating the rats can also be poisoned.
Allman says that a mature pot plant can use up to 15 gallons of water per day: “If there are 100,000 plants in Mendocino County, then come fall time, that’s 1.5 million gallons of water per day.” Often growers suck water directly from creeks; one observer saw ten rafts floating in Outlet Creek, which supports several salmon species. Each raft was equipped with a generator powering a submerged pump connected to camo-painted pipes extending up a hill to an outdoor grow.
The plantations require high levels of nitrogen fertilizer, often bat or seabird guano. Enormous numbers of bags of soil are necessary to fill the pots and grow-bags many growers use; area nurseries sell soil by the truckload. Allman says, “To avoid suspicion, most of these bags don’t make it to the landfill. They stay at the grow site along with whatever other waste materials are produced by plantation caretakers. There should be a California redemption value for soil bags.”
Some operations go beyond the careful placement of grow-bags and pots. “Some bulldoze large areas of land to create a sunny clearing, often at or near the tops of hills,” Allman says. Creeks and rivers below are flooded with silt once winter rains come. LeDoux has witnessed first-hand the devastation this can cause to breeding salmon and other fish. Erosion and contamination combined with fertilizer-laden runoff and water drafting does not bode well for fish species in some of Northern California’s most remote creeks and rivers. “The cumulative effect of illegal marijuana cultivation on fish in these streams is a serious issue,” she says. “We need a think-tank on this whole problem. It needs to be addressed as soon as possible.”
Allman wants to clarify one point: “There is a ser-ious distinction to be made. Many medical [legal] marijuana growers are some of the most responsible citizens around. They buy soil in bulk, use rat traps instead of poison, water with timers and drip systems. They have very little physical impact on the land. I’m not up against legal growers. The ones I’m concerned with are the ones polluting the environment in the name of huge profits. The plants are seasonal, but the environmental damage lasts forever.”
Is it time for a Green-Growers stamp or the think-tank LeDoux proposes? Organic and sustainable growing practices are well suited to this hardy plant. Cartels, diesel generators, and poisons are not. Consumers can demand the greening of the green, and move growers in the direction of environmentally friendly marijuana.